College News

UW-Milwaukee’s student union gets a failing grade — but students are looking to change that with an upcoming vote

UWM students will vote on whether to increase segregated fees for a new student union.

Image By: Josh Detweiler

With a “D” rating for function and “F” for condition, the UW-Milwaukee student union has its problems, from a non-functioning elevator to plumbing failure that leaks from the kitchen into the Panther Shop. Now, students have the opportunity to change all of that.

According to Rick Thomas, director at the UW-Milwaukee Student Union, these are regular occurrences for the building, with parts ranging from 30-60 years old. A facilities condition assessment done in 2014 estimated that the union had over $34 million in “urgent or emergency maintenance issues.” The team of architects and engineers said the projects would need attention within the next 10 years, he said.

“All of our systems have outlived what they consider to be their useful life and [the engineers] said, ‘It’s a credit to your maintenance team who have done good work to extend past the anticipated useful life of these systems,’” Thomas said.

Robin Van Harpen, the university’s Vice Chancellor for Finance and Administrative Affairs, said that the building doesn’t pose health or safety risks, but system failure is a major worry.

“We are more concerned about something happening — a major system going — that could shut the building down,” Van Harpen said. “If our students don’t have any access to a building like that, that would have a very serious impact on students’ ability to really do what they need to do on campus.”

In response to this issue, starting Nov. 6, students will have almost a month to vote on whether or not to increase their segregated fees in order to support the construction of a replacement student union that is estimated to cost as much as $129 million.

As part of the registration for spring classes, students will answer the question: “Would you support an additional student fee of no more than $124 per semester, to be saved in over five years starting as early as fall 2019 in order to support the renovation and or replacement of the existing student union?” Students can vote yes, no or abstain and those who aren’t graduating in December must vote.

In the past, the Board of Regents hasn’t been pleased with the participation rates for typical campus referendums. For this reason, the vote is being included with spring registration, Thomas said.

“So they challenged us, if we’re going to go forward with a referendum, to come up with a way that could really drive participation so that the student voice is much louder, that it’s not just a handful of students in the campus population that’s voting,” Thomas said. “They wanted to hear a very clear message from the students.”

UW System policy states that student unions must be funded through user and segregated fees instead of taxpayer dollars. Dakota Crowell, vice president of student affairs at the UWM Student Association, said he hopes that administration at the union will look for private donations to take the burden off of students.

Since 2015, UWM students pay $75 per semester which goes toward emergency repairs and the building project. If the project does happen, students would continue to pay the $75 in addition to the new fixed amount. However, if it doesn’t, Thomas said it is likely that the $75 fee will increase to keep up with repairs.

When receiving feedback from students, Thomas said one of the main things that resonated the most was that students weren’t proud of their union. He cited Union South and Memorial Union as examples of what UWM students would like to have.

“They’re a little envious of what they see on some of the other UW System campuses,” Thomas said. “They know our facility doesn’t compare at all in a positive way to UW-Madison. So I think there’s a sense from our students that they feel like they deserve a great student union, too. As such, they are willing to pay for it.”

Out of all UW System campuses, UWM’s is the last to be renovated, said Van Harpen. Additionally, it’s one of the busiest with 22,000 visitors per day. With the majority of the student body being commuters, Van Harpen said the union is important because it is one of the only buildings where students can be on campus between classes. Generally, students have been supportive, she said.

Crowell said he is in favor of the referendum, but he and other UWM students aren’t happy about the increase in segregated fees.

As a low-income, first-generation college student, Crowell said maintaining college affordability for students is a top priority. Still, the fees will rise regardless of the vote and if the referendum fails, it’s not clear how much the cost of maintenance would be, he said.

“What I’ve been telling people with the referendum is that you can at least control that increase,” Crowell said. “It’ll be capped at that $199. It can’t go higher than that and at least you get a new building out of it. So I’ve been telling people, ‘It’s a very harsh reality, but your segregated fees are going to go up no matter what.’”

The university will make an announcement about the referendum results before the end of the fall semester, most likely at the beginning of December, Thomas said.

Van Harpen said they will bring the project to the Board of Regents next August as part of the 2019-2021 capital budget. If it passes the Regents, it then must be approved by the both the state Legislature and Gov. Scott Walker, who will ultimately sign a contract with an architecture firm. After that, a committee of students and UWM staff will work with the architects on the design of the building.

“We see a lot of challenges in just continuing to operate this building as it is and we don’t want to spend money where we don’t have to right now — if we’re going to have a big project — but at some point, if we don’t get the support moving forward, we’re going to have to address many of these things because we can only kick the can down the road so far,” Thomas said.

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